Where to begin? I would have said Work Without War had a rich origin story prior to the current crisis. Present circumstances moved me to revisit and re-record it.
First off I ought to credit singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. His style and lyrics–sometimes anthemic, at others empathetic–influenced me. (“The World Turned Upside Down” was a favorite of the former, while on the latter front I probably listened to “A New England” multiple replays in a row, many times, when I was younger.)
Then I ought to celebrate public investment in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information program that caused photos like this song’s visual inspiration to exist. (And, as well, the stance of openness that allows for free, unconstrained use of all of them.)
I don’t see any path from “I have in mind a Billy-Braggish sort of new song” to the lines “From Montecassino to Guadalcanal, godspeed to our boys / And here’s to their sisters putting tanks together with tools that once made toys” without this specific image and caption.
Conversion. Toy factory. Stephanie Cewe and Ann Manemeit, have turned their skill from peacetime production of toy trains to the assembly of parachute flare casings for the armies of democracy. Along with other workers in this Eastern plant, they have turned their skill to the vital needs of the day, and in many cases have seen to it that the machinery they used to use does Uncle Sam’s most important work today. Here, they are assembling parachute flare casings, using the same electric screwdrivers they formerly used to assemble the locomotives of toy trains.
Having touched on the visual and musical inspirations for the song, here comes its “something else” that’s a fair bit more involved and wonky than most other tracks.
What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”Paul Krugman, “Franklin Delano Obama”, New York Times, 2008
Frustration with what I saw as needless and preventable suffering during the 2008 financial crisis and the recession it triggered got me started on this project. It seemed obvious to me then (as it does now) that the Federal government’s response in 2008 was too small, especially in view of the natural experiment WWII created.
We’ve always ponied up big for wars, a public investment that might seem bad for the economy: after all, we’re paying lots of people to build things that are mostly only useful for destroying otherwise productive infrastructure and people, while employing lots of others (soldiers) to do a job that gets many of them injured or killed.
Imagine if we paid lots of people to build things that are bang-on useful for constructive purposes, and employed lots of others doing jobs that don’t. (Another economist, Christina Romer, is worth reading about lessons from the Great Depression, including an analysis of how elements of the New Deal worked just like this, and helped, but were much too small.)
Today I feel as if we’ve jumped the shark on tolerating needless and preventable suffering in multiple ways–at least at the Federal level.
We actually have an enemy we want to kill: the coronavirus. We could be mobilizing people otherwise out of work to do things that help that cause.
We could literally treat our response like waging war.
But even beyond that, if we entertain wartime-scale investment, we could simply pay people their salaries as long as it takes to get control over its spread. Germany and Denmark, for example, have already done this. Our congresswoman, Pramilla Jayapal, has proposed a bill to do this.
Aside from keeping people doing something at least somewhat to their jobs, it would also provide an opportunity to those who can’t do their normal work 40 hours per week to “skill up” on something new–and 100% useful in peacetime.
In any event, then and now the question of “why can’t we put people to worl”–at massive scale, whatever it takes to win–“without war” was and is on my mind.
These lines came first, because I felt it was necessary to start in 1929 (and, of course, taking inspiration from the photo, to mention the toy factory):
Unemployment lines in ’29 stretched from sea to shining sea ‘Round here they shuttered the five and dime downtown And mothballed the toy factory
The narrative flow should seem fairly “inevitable” given the inspirational elements I’ve described knocking around in my head while I was writing it. There was an inherent timeline to follow. It was a little more like “paint by numbers” than free form, if I had to use a visual arts metaphor.
Except for one bit of joyful surprise. The couplet “Now there’s rumors of a draft afoot for our fathers and our sons / And you know if they’re gonna see trouble they’re gonna need guns” is the linchpin of the song for me, both as part of the story and a novel element.
It’s the “well of course we need to re-purpose shuttered factories–and, also, bring women in to work at them, as many as it takes” moment.
You simply can’t fight a war without guns–as many as your army needs!
And that ties back to the refrain: it seems to me you equally obvious that you can’t beat a depression without jobs–as many as your people need.
Let’s hope that lesson of history sinks in sometime soon.